Sneaker retailer scraps plans to keep using Super Bowl ad
Sneaker retailer Just for Feet Inc. scrapped plans to keep running its Super Bowl commercial that showed a barefoot African marathon runner who was tracked down like an animal and tricked into wearing shoes.
By Skip Wollenberg / AP Business Writer
NEW YORK – Sneaker retailer Just for Feet Inc. scrapped plans to keep running its Super Bowl commercial that showed a barefoot African marathon runner who was tracked down like an animal and tricked into wearing shoes. The decision to shelve the ad after only one showing illustrates the unexpected risks involved when advertisers try to rise above the crowd on the premiere annual event for Madison Avenue as well as the NFL.
The Birmingham, Ala. – based shoe store chain made its first Super Bowl appearance last Sunday and had hoped to run the same commercial on other programs for about six weeks. But Harold Ruttenberg, chairman and chief executive, said the ad won’t run again because of criticism of how a runner is treated in the commercial that was intended to celebrate the retailer’s passion for protecting feet. It’s not the first time an advertiser has scrapped plans to keep running an ad after a splashy Super Bowl debut.
Holiday Inn dropped an ad it ran on the telecast two years ago after some complained about its use of a transsexual to draw attention to the hotel chain’s makeover.
The Just for Feet commercial showed a four-member “search and rescue” team tracking a Kenyan runner in a Humvee as he trained over rugged terrain. The trackers found his footprint, and drove ahead to offer a cup of water laced with a knockout drug as he passed by. Shortly after he drank it, the runner staggered and fell on his back. While he lay unconscious, the trackers put sneakers on his feet. The runner cried “No” when he awoke with shoes and he appeared to be trying to kick them off as he jogged away. “We’re Just for Feet – to preserve and protect feet,” a narrator said as the ad ended.
The ad drew mixed reviews. USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter panelists ranked it in the middle of the pack of the 52 commercials that ran in the game. But critic Bob Garfield wrote in the trade magazine Advertising Age that it was “the worst spot on the Super Bowl” and called it “probably racist” and “certainly condescending.” “Have these people lost their minds?” he wrote.
The ad was created by the Rochester, N.Y., office of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Agency spokesman Michael Traphagan said it was intended as a humorous takeoff on how Just for Feet employees can be so passionate about their jobs that they sometimes “do the wrong thing.” Ruttenberg faulted himself for failing to take a closer look at the finished commercial before it ran.
He said he was unaware it showed the trackers drugging the runner’s water and thought the ending would have shown the runner smiling about how the shoes felt. He vigorously denied the ad was racist. He said the ad depicted a Kenyan because Kenyans have been marathon champions many times in recent years. He said the trackers included a Hispanic man and black woman. “The idea was to put shoes on his feet and show him how good these shoes felt,” the Just for Feet founder said. “In hindsight, the critics may very well be correct. But it was not the way we saw it.”
Just for Feet, founded 23 years ago with a single store in Birmingham, Ala., has about 330 stores nationwide with 1998 sales of $775 million.
Was the Super Bowl money wasted?
Ad time in the game sold for an average of $1.6 million for each half-minute commercial – three times the price for top-rated regular series in prime time. Ruttenberg said it was too early to tell. The company ran a sweepstakes tied to the Super Bowl ad and offered a Humvee to the winner.
Saatchi’s Traphagan said there were 2.5 million responses by phone or computer to the contest. “We believe we have gone a long way in putting Just for Feet in people’s minds,” he said.